Avoiding “Tilt” Will Keep You Out of the Poorhouse and the Jailhouse

This is what TILT looks like on a basketball court


(or) 4 Bad Decisions Put You in a Hole…1 Good One Gets You Out  

My friend Ed says we get in trouble if we make four bad decisions in a row. Unfortunately, once you make one bad one, it often puts you in a state of “tilt” where subsequent bad decisions follow. In poker, the expression tilt means you are out of control, like a pinball machine, which typically leads to decisions that make your chips disappear. Decision-making guru Annie Duke says that two critical decisions for teens, driving drunk and having sex, are made, almost by definition, when a teen is on tilt. Indeed, it’s hard to think straight about driving drunk when you are drunk or about sex in the heat of the moment.  

I learned from basketball that success is determined by what you do right after you make a mistake. For example, let’s take the ultimate titled NBA player, Rasheed Wallace. He makes a bad pass. That’s one bad decision, and it could easily be mitigated by sprinting down the court and playing great defense. Instead, Rasheed’s second decision will usually be a stupid foul. His third will be to complain to the ref, leading to a technical foul. If he then makes his fourth bad decision—continuing to complain—he’ll get a second technical and be ejected. Four bad decisions in a row and he’s out of the game.  

Our ability to make decisions is often compromised by tilt. My friend Al received a job offer in Atlanta that required him to pack up his life and move cross-country in three weeks. He didn’t get around to selling his car until one week before his move date. Because Al felt stressed about his move, he was essentially on tilt for a week. This led him to make four bad decisions:  

  1. He never found out the car’s value ($5,600). It would have taken 30 seconds online.
  2. Because of this, he priced the car incorrectly and didn’t get many offers.
  3. He didn’t include “Salvage Title” in his ads, so the calls he was getting wasted time.
  4. He didn’t have a back-up plan. He could have gone to Car Max and at least found out the price at which he could unload the car if he didn’t have other offers.

That was four bad decisions, which put him in a situation the day before he left where he agreed to sell the car for $3,000. As it was, the offer fell through and he went to Atlanta while his car stayed in L.A. Certainly he was in a deficit position, but even after he arrived in Atlanta, he had options. If he had stayed on tilt, his fifth choice could have been to ship the car to Atlanta from a company that advertised on Craig’s List. This could have been disastrous since Craig’s List had warning in big letters on its site that said, “100% of Offers to Ship Cars are Fraudulent.”   

Here’s my point: in the midst of any situation, you are only one good decision from making things better. The key is to not be on tilt when you make that next decision. To do so, it might only take a deep breath or a moment of reasoning. It might take a cup of coffee and a long walk. Or it might require you to sleep on it. When I lived in New York City in 2006, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue running my literary agency and living in the city. I couldn’t make possibly make a balanced decision while I was there, so I decided to travel and let the decision come to me.  

In Al’s case, once he got settled in Atlanta, he was no longer on tilt. That allowed him to explore all options. It’ s important to remember that even when it seems like you’re in a hole, you likely have more options than you think. Al’s options included:  

  1. Flying back to L.A. to sell the car.
  2. Donating the car to charity.
  3. Getting three bids from reputable companies to ship his car.
  4. Demanding that I do him a favor.
  5. Asking me to sell his car in the right way.

Four bad decisions had put him in a hole, but one good one could allow him to crawl out of it. He thought hard about how he should ask me to sell his car and he walked in my shoes (one of the most critical points of my book The Poker MBA). Because I had helped him so much already, he was aware enough to know he had over-extended my goodwill. Rather than demand a favor, very tentatively, he said to me, “I know you said you didn’t want to do this, and I’ll understand if you say no, but I’ve been getting a ton of calls since I lowered the price so you might be able to make some cash.”  

I went to work in a great frame of mind (the opposite of tilt) and made a series of good decisions. In less than five minutes, I found out the Blue Book Value of the Car ($5,600), changed the ad on Auto Trader to include Salvage Title and posted a new ad on Craig’s List. Three days later, I sold the car for $4,800.  

As for the decisions about driving drunk and safe sex, it’s best to make those decisions before you reach a state of tilt. Let’s pretend you know you’re going to drink, yet you still drive your car to a party. You park in a spot where you’ll be towed if you don’t leave by midnight. You get drunk. You’ve just made three bad decisions. The fourth one could lead to a series of bad outcomes—ranging from getting your car towed to getting a DUI (which could cost you $15,000 plus your license). If those were your only two options, getting your car towed doesn’t look so bad. However, because you’re on tilt, you won’t be in a state to leave the car–or make an even smarter decision, such as calling a friend or even your parents.  

What led me to write this column was watching how Al’s series of poor decisions put him in a bind. I see all the time—and this is what inspired me to start this blog—is that most of us make poor choices managing our own lives. Had Al not been on tilt in the first place, he would have spent less time trying to sell the car, made more money, and never would have needed to ask for help. Fortunately, this story had a happy ending, and it proves the point that, in the midst of any situation, you are only one good decision from making things better. To do so, find a way to get yourself out of a state of tilt and explore all your options. Even better, plan your life in such a way that you avoid tilt altogether.  


There is actually a group of friends whose purpose is to get the others on tilt so they can swindle or embarrass them. The Tilt Boys are highlighted by my friends, TV host and poker author Phil Gordon and possibilities’ accelerator Rafe Furst. They even wrote a book, Tales from the Tiltboys, about their experiences.

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